Once upon a time, way back when there were prophets who stood on boxes in the town square and preached, when there was a Temple in Jerusalem where we visited three times a year, God was an openly, active player in everyday life.
It was a time when Biblical warnings came true. For example, the Torah devotes two chapters in Sefer VaYikra (13 and 14), and 116 verses, to describe in great detail an illness called Tzara’at (erroneously translated as leprosy). This “affliction” can strike a person’s body, clothing, even the walls of a house. The Torah details how the diagnosis must be made by the Kohanim, priests. And then describes in great detail the sacrifices that a “cured” individual must offer.
The one detail missing from this long discussion is why anyone would be afflicted by God in this way. How do we know that this is God’s handiwork? There are two reasons: (a) The diagnosis is done by someone who is on God’s payroll, i.e. a Kohen, a priest, and (b) after living through the affliction, the cured individual must bring a sin offering.
So, why is someone punished with Tzara’at? Our Talmudic sages tell us to look at two incidents when someone came down with a case of Tzara’at. The first is Moshe Rabbenu. One of the miraculous signs proving that God sent him to save the Jews was “put your hand inside your cloak. Now pull it out and see what happened.” After doing so, Moshe was astounded to see that he had Tzara’at on his hand. Why? Because just two minutes earlier, Moshe slandered the Jews in Egypt. He claimed they would not believe him. (See Shemot 4:6-8)
The second example is the story of Miriam who spoke Lashon Hara (loosely translated as gossip) about her little brother, Moshe. (See Bamidbar 1212:1-13). Apparently, Miriam said some nasty things about Moshe Rabbenu’s wife. The Torah does not offer details of what she said because they are not important. Rather, the act of speaking Lashon HaRa is what is important to report. Miriam is punished with Tzara’at and is banished from polite society for a week.
The conclusion reached by the Rabbis is self-evident. People are punished with Tzara’at because the spoke slander or hurtful gossip about others. Do that, says the Torah, and God unloads upon you an affliction called Tzara’at that will disrupt your life totally, make you a temporary outcast from society and cost you real money when you buy the sacrifices.
In those days, way back when, once upon a time, people had true Yir’at Shama’yim, fear of God. Not only was God carefully watching us, but, on occasion, He came out of the shadows to extract a real price for wrongdoing.
Nowadays, things are different.
For two thousand years, God has hidden His face and allowed us to drift through a protracted period of exile filled with every kind of affliction, hardship and death imaginable, including some that were not imaginable. Gone are the days when there is a clear equation between wrongdoing – either mistaken or purposeful – and the price paid for it.
True, there were times of grace, of relative security and wellbeing. The Maccabees vanquished the Greeks and founded a monarchy. The story does not end well. In the 1400s, Spain was an almost idyllic place for Jews to live. Some of their rabbinic leaders because advisers to the king. We are told it was a Golden Age. In the end, the gold tarnished and decayed and most of us ended up running for our lives.
However, the greatest difficulty of the past two thousand years is that God has receded from openly being a part of our lives. We stand bruised, and in tatters, both physically and mentally as we cry out to Him, “Where are You?” “Please, God, save us!” When the echo of our voices dies down, we are left standing in the darkness in silence.
What have we done recently to deserve this?
Today, the whole world stands together with us and askes the same question. As in tragedies past, the affliction does not discriminate. There is no special privilege for the pious or for children or for the elderly. You cannot buy or bribe your way out.
Somehow, our intuition says we need to change. We need to repair (called Tikkun) something that might make a difference.
Do we dare look back to the Biblical Tzara’at for a clue?
There is no question that our world currently is overwhelmed with talking. As a child, I remember that the TV had news at 6 pm for a half hour or an hour and again at 11 pm. That was it. Today, there is “news” and “analysis” 24/7 on thousands of TV, online cable channels and internet sources, all the time, non-stop.
As a child, no one dared used a four-lettered word in polite conversation. Today, it is hard to find a movie where such words do not constitute a good part of the dialogue!
Talk is cheap. Everyone has bought a seemingly unlimited supply. Talk is no longer filtered. Doesn’t matter who is offended or hurt. Worry not, no one says, “I’m sorry” anymore and means it.
What ever happened to Yir’at Shama’yim, the fear of God?
Is what we are experiencing a form of modern Tzara’at? God only knows – seriously. Nevertheless, religious Jews end the Shemonah Esray – the most important prayer, recited three times daily – with a paragraph that begins with the words, “My God, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from deceitful speech.” Maybe increasing the sincerity of the recitation might make a difference. From your mouths to God’s ears.